Delhi High Court Examines Lack of Transparency in Modi’s PM-CARES Fund

Prime Minister (PM) of India Narendra Modi. Photo: PIB
Prime Minister (PM) of India Narendra Modi. Photo: PIB

While dozens of reports and court cases have already raised concerns over the possible misappropriation in the fund that Modi had created to collect public money to deal with Covid-19 crisis in India, the opacity in the use of the fund persists. 

By Rakesh Raman

As the mystery around the PM-CARES Fund mounts, the government of prime minister (PM) Narendra Modi claims that it is not a government fund. A functionary in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has informed the Delhi High Court that it is not a Government of India fund and its accounts are audited by an auditor – a chartered accountant drawn from the panel prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

An affidavit filed by an Under Secretary at the PMO who is discharging his functions in the PM Cares Trust on honorary basis, has said the trust functions with transparency, although despite persistent demands by Indian citizens, PM-CARES Fund has not released its account statements.

The affidavit was filed by the PMO bureaucrat in response to a petition seeking a direction to declare the PM-CARES Fund a ‘State Fund’ under the Constitution to ensure transparency in its functioning. According to a report by NDTV, a bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Amit Bansal has fixed the matter for further hearing on September 27.

While dozens of reports and court cases have already raised concerns over the possible misappropriation in the fund that Modi had created to collect public money to deal with Covid-19 crisis in India, the opacity in the use of the fund persists. 

Since the Modi government continues to handle the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM-CARES Fund) in a secret manner, some former bureaucrats had expressed their dissatisfaction with the management of the Fund. 

These former civil servants have highlighted the lack of transparency in the PM-CARES Fund, while the Modi government refuses to reveal the details of the Fund and does not entertain the requests filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

In their open letter to Modi, according to a report of The Indian Express, a group of 100 retired civil servants have flagged a lack of transparency in the PM-CARES Fund, asking for the financial details of receipts and expenditures to be made public.

The letter – signed by bureaucrats who have held important positions in both the Central and state governments – argues that there is a clear absence of transparency in every aspect of the PM-CARES Fund. The signatories lament that neither details of donors and amounts received nor details of expenditures incurred are in the public domain. 

“This opacity is disturbing as the state governments handling the Covid-19 challenge were, and continue to be, sorely in need of financial assistance,” the letter says. The text of the letter along with the list of signatories was published by The Wire news service.

SPINELESS JUDICIARY AND COMPLICIT BUREAUCRACY

It is being observed that either the foreign leaders or the retired officials in India criticize Modi constantly for his inappropriate actions. But the serving bureaucrats, judges, and officials of law-enforcement agencies are so spineless that they never question Modi or his colleagues in the government. That’s why Modi and the members of his party are operating with full impunity.

It is not only the PM-CARES Fund that is being handled in an opaque manner, actually corruption is so rampant in the entire country that it has become the lifeblood of Indian politicians and top government functionaries. Even the anti-corruption outfits such as the Lokpal, Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) are full of officials who are complicit in the acts of crime and corruption.

A recent report released by the U.S. Department of State has revealed that rampant corruption is happening at all levels of government in India. The report released on March 30 says that the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by government officials. But most government officials frequently engage in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the past year, the report says.

As the PM-CARES Fund has presumably collected thousands of crores of rupees (estimated to be billions of dollars), there is a possibility of huge corruption in management of the Fund. The chattering classes believe that Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) use such dubious funds to win elections fraudulently either by manipulating the electronic voting machines (EVMs) or by purchasing voters and legislators of opposition parties in horse-trading deals.

But people demand transparency. “It is necessary that for reasons of probity and adherence to standards of public accountability, the financial details of receipts and expenditures be made available in order to avoid doubts of wrongdoing,” the bureaucrats demand in their letter to PM Modi.

ROLE OF THE SUPREME COURT

Earlier, a Supreme Court ruling on August 18 last year had rejected a plea seeking directions to transfer all contributions made to the PM-CARES Fund to the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF).

While the PM-CARES Fund was created by PM Modi on March 27, 2020 following the Covid-19 pandemic in India, the Modi government brazenly refuses to reveal the details of money collected and spent through this account.

According to reports, the Supreme Court rejected a plea seeking directions to transfer all contributions made to the PM-CARES Fund to the NDRF, a public account which is auditable and publicly available.

The petition, filed by NGO ‘Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL)’ through advocate Prashant Bhushan, had sought a direction to the Centre to transfer all contributions made to the PM-CARES Fund, set up for Covid-19 relief, to the NDRF.

It is being increasingly observed that the Supreme Court of India does not dare to challenge the decisions of the Modi government. Many people believe that after the court’s refusal to probe the corruption in Modi’s Rafale deal, this case of PM-CARES Fund is also being brushed under the carpet.

In the absence of financial resources and possible corruption in Covid funds, the infection is spreading rapidly across the country and the healthcare infrastructure has completely collapsed. As a result, India is the second most affected country after the U.S., although the Covid data that the Modi government releases is understated and false.

The actual number of Covid cases and deaths in India are believed to be far more than what is being officially reported. Now, the same lack of transparency is being observed in the Covid vaccination exercise. 

In a recent event on the topic “Speaking Truth to Power: Citizens and the Law,” a Supreme Court of India judge Justice D.Y. Chandrachud highlighted manipulation of Covid-19 data as an example. “One cannot rely only on the state for truth. Totalitarian governments are known for their constant reliance on falsehoods to consolidate power,” he said. His remarks subtly targeted the Modi government.

While the Modi government is working in an autocratic manner and there is no political opposition to challenge Modi and his government, Modi is not being held accountable for his misdemeanors.

However, with the hope to hold Modi accountable, the former bureaucrats said in their letter: “It is essential that the position and stature of the Prime Minister is kept intact by ensuring total transparency in all dealings the Prime Minister is associated with.”

By Rakesh Raman, who is a national award-winning journalist and social activist. He is the founder of a humanitarian organization RMN Foundation which is working in diverse areas to help the disadvantaged and distressed people in the society.

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